Authors: Michelle Sagara
Tags: #General, #Epic, #Fiction, #Romance, #Fantasy
Severn was already down the street. So was half the neighborhood. They weren’t actually pressed around the broken shards of glass; they weren’t
stupid. But they were between Kaylin and Margot’s.
What Kaylin did not need on a day that included a testy Evanton and an insane elemental garden was the responsibility of protecting Margot, a woman she despised. What Kaylin needed didn’t seem to make much difference.
And if it came right down to it, Kaylin wasn’t exactly Billington’s biggest fan, either. He was a cut above Margot when it came to business on Elani, but that wasn’t saying much; he didn’t have her face, her figure or her sheer magnetism. And to date, he’d been unable to buy or hire it, although the constant stream of young women who worked for a week or two in his storefront always caused speculation when things were slow on the beat.
He charted stars, read palms, tea leaves and hands; he also specialized in reading bumps on the head that were conveniently hidden by hair in most cases. His biggest seller, ironically enough, was a cure for baldness, if you didn’t count aphrodisiacs. Kaylin was not a tax collector, and she’d therefore never had call to examine the books of either merchant, but she was willing to bet that Margot’s love potions outsold anything Billington tried to push.
Billington was a man who was keenly aware that there were only so many people to fleece, so his envy often got the better of him. Usually this happened when he’d been drinking, and at this time in the morning, most of the bars and taverns were closed for business.
Kaylin glanced at Severn, and froze. His hand had dropped, not to his clubs, which were regulation gear, but to his waist, around which his weapons of choice lay twined. He was closer to the store than she was, and even if he hadn’t been, he was taller than most of the milling crowd, and could see above their heads.
Kaylin, who’d never been, and would never be, as tall, made do. She tapped two people on the shoulder and told them, tersely, to get the hell out of the way. Her hands were around the haft of her beat stick; nothing she had seen had made her draw daggers. And drawing those daggers on a crowded street was an invitation to a hell of a lot of paperwork; her instinctive dread of reports usually kept her in line in all but real emergencies.
The people started to argue, took one look at her surcoat and her face and backed away. They backed into one or two other people, who started to speak, and then did the same. If this was the effect of being soaking wet in Elani Street, Kaylin thought buckets of water might actually come in useful for something other than dishes.
As they cleared, she saw that Billington had, indeed, brought goons. The window hadn’t shattered by accident, and in the back of the shop, well away from the shards of broken glass, she could see the dim outline of Margot’s clientele. Margot, however, was not cowering with them. She had turned a particular shade of red-purple that clashed in every way with her hair, but somehow suited it anyway.
That, and she wasn’t a fool; she had seen Kaylin trip over her sign, and she had seen Severn right it. She knew they were walking the beat, and she knew that Kaylin’s intense dislike of her business would mean at least someone was watching her like a proverbial Hawk.
Either that or, Kaylin thought grudgingly, she wasn’t a craven coward. It’s funny how hard it was to see anything good in someone you disliked so intensely.
But in this case, it was impossible to miss. Billington was there, and Kaylin couldn’t actually see his face, but she could count the backs of his goons. They were standing along a half circle behind him, and they were armed. None of this seemed to make a dent in Margot’s operatic, if genuine, rage.
Kaylin snorted and started to walk toward them; Severn’s hand caught her shoulder. She glanced back at him and frowned.
“Something’s up,” he said, his voice pitched low enough that she had to strain to hear it. “They broke the window. But Billington hasn’t raised his voice. He’s not drunk.”
She turned to look at the display of backs again; Billington’s was the broadest, and also, by about three inches, the shortest. Severn, however, was right. Margot’s voice could be heard clearly. It always could. But no one else seemed to be talking much, and that was unusual. They seemed, in fact, to be waiting.
Broken window—that would get attention. The possibility of unrest in Elani would get attention. Whose?
Theirs. The Hawks.
She tightened her grip on her stick; Severn, however, unwound his chain. The blades at either end, he now took in each hand. He did not, however, start the chain spinning. She wondered, not for the first time, and no doubt not for the last, what he had been like as a hunting Wolf. Who he had killed? Why?
But this was not the time to ask, if there ever was one.
She took a deep breath and waded through the last of the sparse crowd until she was three yards from the closest of the backs. Lifting one hand—and her voice, because no normal speaking voice would cut through Margot’s outrage—she said, “What seems to be the problem here?”
The man standing closest to Billington’s back turned.
The world shifted. It wasn’t a man. It was a stocky woman, with a scar across her upper lip, and a pierced left eyebrow. Her jaw was square, her hair cropped very short—but Kaylin recognized her anyway. The others turned, as well; Kaylin was aware of both their movement and Margot’s sudden silence.
One of the men said something to Billington and handed him a small bag. He also handed a similar one to Margot, whose hands grasped it reflexively. Even at this distance the sound of coins was distinct and clear.
“Apologies for the misunderstanding,” the woman said to Margot. It was a dismissal. Margot’s lovely eyes narrowed; Kaylin saw that much before the woman turned to her.
Words deserted Kaylin. She shifted her stance slightly, and her knuckles whitened.
“You don’t recognize me? No hello for an old friend?”
“Hello, Morse,” Kaylin said.
“So,” she said, as she met Kaylin’s widened eyes, “it’s true. You’re a Hawk. You got out.” Her smile was thin, and ugly. The scar didn’t help.
Kaylin nodded slowly. “Yeah. I got out.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
“You’re not in Barren now.”
“No. But I’m running a bit of a mission for the fief lord. You want to try to arrest me?” She laughed. The laughter, like the smile, was ugly and sharply edged.
Kaylin’s hands shifted on the stick she carried. But she put it up. “No.” Drawing a deep breath—which was hard, because her throat and her chest seemed suddenly tight and immobile—she added, “Unless Margot wishes to press vandalism charges.”
Margot, however, had opened the bag that had been placed in her hands.
Morse shrugged and turned, almost bored, to look at Margot. “That should cover the cost of the window, and the inconvenience to your customers. Do you want to cause trouble for us?” The words shaded into threat, even blandly delivered.
“I will if you ever break another one of my windows,” was the curt reply.
“Fair enough,” Morse said, and turned back to Kaylin. “Well,
Kaylin walked up to Margot, trying to remember her intense dislike of the woman. It was gone; it had crumbled. Margot wouldn’t cause trouble for Morse. No one with half a brain would. “Margot?”
“It was probably a misunderstanding of some sort,” the exotic charlatan replied. She took a second to cast a venomous glare at Billington who, with his lack of finesse and class, was standing in the street, openly counting his new money.
Kaylin was certain word of his ill-gotten gains would be spreading down the street and the bars and taverns would be opening conveniently early to take advantage of him. Couldn’t happen to a nicer man.
“Well, then,” Morse said cheerfully. “We’ll just be going.”
Kaylin said nothing for a long moment. Then she turned. “Morse.”
“I always wondered what had happened to you,” Morse told her. “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to confirm the rumors.” Her eyes narrowed slightly as she looked at Kaylin’s face.
It took Kaylin a moment to realize what Morse was looking at: her mark. Nightshade’s mark. It was so much a part of her by this point she could forget it was there. But Morse had never seen it.
“You haven’t changed much,” Morse told her, her expression replacing the harsh edges with growing distance. “Except for your cheek, you almost look the same.”
“Why did you come here, Morse?”
The woman shrugged. “I told you, I’m running an errand.”
“Is it legal?”
“I live in Barren. You haven’t been gone so long that you don’t remember the definition of law, there.”
“You’re not there now,” Kaylin said, shading the words differently this time.
Morse hesitated, the way she sometimes did when she was about to say something serious. “I am. In any way that counts. You’re not.” She looked as if she would say more, but one of the men with her approached them, and the moment, which was so thin it might cut, broke. “Yeah, legal. Unless running messages breaks Imperial Law these days.”
“Depends on what’s in the message.”
“Judge for yourself, Eli.” Morse shoved a hand into her shirt, and came up with a flattened, squished piece of paper. Or two. “It’s for you. Obb,” she added, “get your butt out of the damn glass. We’re heading back. We’re late.”
Kaylin took the letter and stared at it. Then she glanced at Severn, whose hands were still on his blades. She flinched at his expression, but she didn’t—quite—look away. She managed a shrug.
“I’ll come by later for the reply,” Morse told her.
Kaylin almost said. But she couldn’t force the words out of her mouth. What came out, instead, was “Later.”
Morse nodded, and walked away; the others trailed after her like a badly behaved shadow. Only when they’d turned a corner a few blocks down the street did Severn relax enough to approach her.
She looked at him, and then shook her head. Bent down to pick up a small slab of glass.
“Leave it,” he told her, catching her wrist. “Margot can clean it up. She’s got the money for it at the moment, and it’ll employ someone for a few hours. If she fails to clean it up, you can charge her with littering.”
She nodded, stood and looked down the street. Morse. Here.
“I knew her,” she told Severn, without once looking up at his face, “when I lived in Barren.”
He was silent. He didn’t ask her when that was; he wasn’t an idiot, he could figure it out. What he said, instead, was “Did you meet the fief lord of Barren while you were there?”
She nodded, almost numb.
For the rest of the day—admittedly one shortened by two hours in the elemental garden—Kaylin didn’t bump into another offensive sandwich board. Severn assumed the street-side stretch of their patrol. He didn’t speak, and as Kaylin didn’t have much she wanted to say, the rest of their round was pretty damn quiet. By the end of it, she was mostly dry.
So was the letter she was carrying. She wanted to read it. At the same time, she wanted to burn it or toss it into the nearest garbage heap. Elani was fairly tidy, on the other hand, so the garbage heaps were not that close to their patrol route.
she thought. She glanced once at Severn, and remembered walking different streets, with an entirely different goal, beside Morse. Morse who could talk you deaf or cut you without blinking. She hadn’t been so scarred, back then. She hadn’t looked as old.
But she’d always looked as dangerous.
“Dinner?” Severn asked, as they headed back to the Halls.
“Will it come as much of a surprise if I say I’m not hungry?”
“Actually, it would.”
She grimaced, dredging a small smile out of somewhere. Where, given her mood, she honestly couldn’t say.
“Did you figure out what was bothering you?”
“Probably not. On the other hand, whatever it was couldn’t be as bad as what’s bothering me
” She hesitated. Glanced at him as they reached the steps that lead into the building. “Severn—”
“We can talk over dinner. We can not talk over dinner, as well. You did a pretty good job of that on patrol.” His smile was slight, and it was shadowed, but he offered it anyway. “I told you, the past is the past. I don’t care to know what you don’t care to tell me.”
She nodded. She knew he meant it. But he didn’t know what she knew. She’d tried to tell him, but only once. Now, she had no desire to even try. Telling him about the past was one thing; telling him about the past when it had crept, unwelcome and unexpected, into the present was another.
What had she expected?
When she’d crossed the bridge over the Ablayne, when she’d stepped foot on the cobbled and patrolled streets of the Emperor’s city, she had never truly expected to stay here. She hadn’t come to escape.
“Sorry, did you say something?”
He grimaced. “Not much. Lockers. We can file a nonreport in the morning.”
She nodded and fell into step beside him; they’d managed to make it to the Aerie without any conscious awareness, on her part, of passing through the doors. She remembered the first time she’d come in through the front doors. She remembered the first time she’d arrived at the Halls of Law. They weren’t the same.
For a moment, the Halls of Law looked so insubstantial she could almost see the street through the stonework. But the streets she saw weren’t the streets of Nightshade; they weren’t the streets of the city whose laws she had vowed to give her life enforcing. They were darker, grayer, devoid of even the hope she’d felt in Nightshade at Severn’s side.
“Okay,” Severn told her. “Stay here a minute.”
She shook her head and dredged up what she hoped was a smile. Judging from his grimace, it was a pretty pathetic one. “I’ll go get changed,” she told his retreating back.
She walked into the locker room, found her locker and leaned her forehead against its door for a minute.